Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Issue 5, Vol. 1 - 25th May 1894

Issue 5, Vol. 1
Published: 24/05/94
Price: ½d
Author(s): Harry Blyth
Illustrator(s): Unknown
Main story: The White Slaver (Harry Blyth)
The story begins with a lengthy and extremely melodramatic description of a house called Hawkscot on the coast of Northumberland. The house is right on the cliff, with a ladder leading down to a cave and the mooring-place for a stout Yawl. Two men descend the ladder, one named Peter Wraith, the other Dod Panton. The two are thieves and tonight aim to rob a Colonel Melville of a beautiful jewel known as the "Sacred Cross of Issa". A third member of their gang, named Sim, is to meet them at the colonel's house with a trap so that they can make their escape. The two discuss their plans, pointing out that they have meant to live respectably, but wish to steal the gem in order to restore it to it's rightful owners, a tribe of Malays.
Meeting Sim, they drive down to the Colonel's house, Stoneywall manor. Reaching the mansion and silently scaling the walls, the two soon come to the library and effect entrance through a poorly secured window. They just as easily open the desk where the gem is hidden and secure it, but at the same moment are disturbed by Frank Melville, the colonel's son. He is struck down by the butt of a revolver in the struggle and presumed killed. The two thieves decide to take his body with them, so that they may dispose of it in some way and thereby escape hanging. They ride back to Hawkscot and hide the body in the stables, whilst convincing Sim that nothing is amiss, fearing that if he knew murder had been done he'd set half the country after them. Once Sim is gone they discover that they have not killed Frank Melville but only stunned him! Neither feels up to actually murdering him in a cold-blooded way, so they decide instead to keep him prisoner for a short time, until a sailor they know called Gray Murdoch can get them out of the country.
Even as they talk, Gray Murdoch rolls up offshore aboard his brand new steamer, which he has on tick, remarking "there's not a more substantial ship afloat, she's built from keel to mast of paper". Dod and Peter welcome him into their home and ask him to take Frank to some far-away port and dump him, in order to buy the two enough time to collect the money for the Sacred Cross of Issa and escape England forever. Gray says he is heading for Africa next, to try his hand in the "black ivory" trade, better known as slave trading. He says that "white ivory" can fetch more, and agrees to take Frank aboard for the sum of £100. However as the money is counted out the old woman who had been feeding the prisoner rushes in to warn the three that hordes of policemen are heading towards the farm. In the ensuing struggle to get the prisoner away to the ship, Frank pulls away some of Dod's clothing. As Peter stuffs money from around the house into a sack, Dod notices the gem is missing! It was in the pocket pulled away by Frank. The two thieves rush down to the cliff and see the boat already being pulled back to Gray Murdoch's ship, the Weasel, with it's prisoner aboard. Frank is considerably confused by the latest turn of events, he had presumed he was going to be drowned when he was taken to the cliff edge, not put aboard a ship. Presuming the Sacred Cross, still in his hand wrapped in cloth, is a weapon of some sort, he hides it. Dod Panton, swimming towards the ship, is left behind by Gray Murdoch, who wishes to avoid a police chase at this moment in time. Dod can only float and shout curses until the police arrest him.
Frank is thrown into the hold of the ship and left to suffer during a violent storm, but is then hauled up on deck for fresh air by Gray Murdoch and his Portuguese first mate, Nicolo Posola. After Frank recovers he is called to the captain's cabin, where Murdoch tells him that Dod and Peter wanted to drown him, but Gray had his life spared. He says Frank must join him on a cruise and then will be taken back to England and given his freedom... as long as he obeys orders whilst aboard ship! Frank agrees, but says he would rather die than be involved in any criminal or malicious actions. The captain appears to agree and Frank leaves to begin his duties aboard ship... little knowing that in actual fact the captain intends to have him sold as a slave! Shortly, various articles marked with the name Weasel are thrown overboard and left to float, whilst the ship is re-painted and renamed the Flying Dart. This causes suspicion among the crew, so the captain and his mate bring the crew on deck and tell them in barely-disguised language that they intend to become pirates and slavers. One crewman called Joe Johnson objects, and is made to walk the plank! Frank steps in and demands the sailor be saved, agreeing to help Gray Murdoch in whatever comes in the process. Joe is saved from the sharks but Frank is terrified of what he has now agreed to do – slavery and piracy! Joe thanks him and agrees to stick by his side rather than take a chance to escape at a port.
The ship shortly puts into Lisbon and Gray Murdoch takes Frank ashore in order to use him as secretary whilst meeting some merchants. A celebration is in full swing in the port, and the two stumble into a parade, becoming unavoidably separated. Frank is eventually precipitated through a rotten wooden gate and into a beautiful garden. There he meets three women who take him to their father, Signor Corregidor, who asks Frank to stay with him for the day. Frank agrees, hoping he can later slip away and find a ship going to England. He has a telegram sent to his effect, and spends the rest of the day dancing with one of the women, Thersa. Later he leaves the house and falls in with some celebrating Englishmen, who put him up for the night in one of their hotel rooms. In the morning he again visits Signor Corregidor, and throughout the whole week. At last he resolves to sail back to England and goes to settle up his hotel bill, using Portuguese money given to him by Gray Murdoch. However this money turns out to be fake and he is arrested. As he is led from the hotel a British sailor shots at him to run to the end of the street and board The Golden Snake, a ship just setting off. Frank does so and leaps aboard just as the gang-planks are being withdrawn. Only then does he find the ship is captained by Gray Murdoch!
The pirate reveals that he sold his old ship and bought the new one cheap, as she is better suited both to the waters of the Congo, and for concealing the "merchandise" on board. Frank also learns that Joe Johnson has been left behind, leaving him no friends aboard. The ship sails to the Congo and picks it’s way through wild and dangerous African rivers. Gray Murdoch boasting of the ‘glory’ of hunting man for sport and of his association with a well-known Portuguese slaver called "The Gray Tiger". Frank thinks fast and decides that if he can bring this man to justice, it would do the world a great favour, and so resolves to remain silent and compliant until he can come face to face with this dread villain. The ship finally anchors in a hidden creek, and Frank becomes largely ignored, as there is no way for him to escape and travel through the jungle alone. His free run of the ship does allow him to get hold of a brace of revolvers and a flask of brandy spiked with laudanum.
The Captain, mate, Frank and two of the crew leave the ship and row down a small river, eventually arriving at a lake in the centre of which is a large island. A hidden landing stage is guarded by an African who is happy to receive a kick from the first mate. The five walk up a path further into the island, Gray Murdoch now being led by Nicolo Posola. It turns out that the mate is the son of the Gray Tiger, who greets him joyously, for this is the hidden camp of the notorious slave trader. Two long, large huts contain the slaves, which are shown to the sailors. One of them, pirate that he is, can’t stand to see the awful scene and Frank feels that this man will be an ally later. Frank then finds out that he is to be made a slave himself, Gray Murdoch offering Frank, who can be held to ransom, for all the African slaves and some gold. The Gray Tiger eventually agrees and a feast commences.
Frank bides his time until night, when the revel is in full swing, and he is joined by the two sailors. They both believe in slavery, but still won’t hold with torture. Not exactly friendly allies but the best Frank can work with, he arranges for them to free the slaves whilst Frank takes care of the sentries by giving them the drugged brandy. Once the three make their escape the slavers will be at the mercy of their former captives. The plan is put into effect, and for good measure Frank and his comrades decide to spread panic in the camp by firing the jungle on the island.
The dried foliage catches fire easily, but as the fire starts Frank and the two sailors, Bill and Joe, hear hearty British cheers and gunfire ringing from the other side of the flames, the navy is here! And what’s more, so is Colonel Melville, Frank’s father. Frank shouts out that he will row around, but is recaptured by Gray Murdoch who is escaping in another boat. Threatening the two sailors with charges of piracy and hanging, they once again join the slaver’s side. The four regain the hidden ship and sail for Malaya, even though fuel is short and the captain must reach the Malay Archipelago ahead of the British ships. Frank is now closely watched, and the British ship is not seen for some time, which makes him begin to lose hope.
One day, the British ship, Avenger, is sighted. Frank notices before the captain, who berates and then shoots the look-out for not spotting it. The Golden Snake is still well ahead of her rival, though, and short on coal. Murdoch resolves to put in at Cape Town, sell the ship and make good his escape with the money. The Engineer, who comes up with the plan initially (and is then told by the captain that he had already thought of it first!), wishes to be paid as well. He then asks what is to be done with Frank, to which Murdoch replies he knows of a Malay priest who lives in the suburbs, and who can hold frank hostage until "his father has paid me his last soverign!".
The captain and engineer continue to haggle as time goes on, both distrusting the other and concentrating on making sure they get thier share of the ransom. At last the reach Cape Town and Frank is drugged and taken ashore, awaking in a splendid house owned by the Malay priest. This priest happens to belong to the tribe who revered the Sacred Cross of Issa, and the priest therefore wishes to sacrifice Frank, as he is the son of the Colonel who stole it. Gray persuades the priest to hold on for three days whilst he makes the arrangements to collect the ransom, however he then returns after two days demanding Frank is put to death, as all his plans have failed and he simply wants revenge. Frank is taken to the altar and made to stand, whilst the priest raises his ornate knife. "Well, why don't you strike?" asks Frank "I am anxious to show you how an Englishman can die". I want those to be my last words. As the knife is bought down, it hits the Sacred Cross of Issa in Frank's pocket, tearing the material and causing the stone to fall to the ground. The priest and his Malay congregation interpret this as a sign from the gods and spare the young man's life. At the same instant Frank points to Gray Murdoch, saying he is the evil one, and Gray is sacrificed in his place.
Whilst this goes on, Frank rushes from the temple and straight into his father, who has arrived on the scene with armed men. His father explains that Dod Panton confessed all the details of the case as soon as he was arrested, and this put Colonel Melville on the track of Gray Murdoch. He arrived in Lisbon three days after Frank had left and met Signor Corregidor and both his daughters (note that the Signor had three earlier in the story!). Peter Wraith, the other thief, is explained away as having fallen as he descended the cliff. The Colonel and Frank decide to leave the Sacred Cross of Issa with the Malays and turn for home, though Frank wishes to stop off in Lisbon on the way!

Other Stories: None

Notes: Another mess of a story from Harry Blyth! Whilst not as bad as some of his works (issue 11 of the Halfpenny Marvel being a case in point) there are still some bizarre moments, such as the Malay priest's knife hitting the Sacred Cross of Issa in Frank's pocket and allowing him to escape execution (why not just show them the gem as soon as it is mentioned?). Frank's recapture after the battle at the Slaver's camp stretches credibility a bit too.
The story ends quite high up on the last column of page 15, the rest of the column being taken up by a "fascinating facts"-type feature, including statistics about the stock of paid notes in the Bank of England (they filled 13,400 "boxes", and would cover the area of "a fairly large town" if laid flat). Another concerns a drunk officer at an army barracks who looks in on his men as they are walking on thier hands, but in the morning puts it down to drink - and so the soldiers escape a reprimand! A small advert for the Halfpenny Marvel also features, encouraging readers to buy "back numbers" from the newsagent - a practice which is impossible today.
The editorial also mentions this, remarking that the previous issue sold out so fast a reprint was ordered and dispatched to newsagents, so that readers who missed out may still be in with a chance. A method of obtaining fresh water from springs under the sea is also mentioned, and then there's a section on how large and ferocious animals are terrified of mice and rats (so always keep some in cages whilst adventuring in the Congo, chaps!). The article also mentions the famous "Driver Ants" (aka Army ants) which live in West Africa and move in one huge mass, devouring all living things before them.
The following section mentions a fish from Britsh Columbia which can be caught, dried and burned for light. The editor wishes he had some of these fish on hand on "a foggy November day, when the gas goes out suddenly every two hours". And finally the next story is mentioned, an army story set in the Ashantee war.